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Awesome: 31.11%
Worth A Look53.33%
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6 reviews, 9 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Math & Baseball--It All Adds Up"
5 stars

Because it is a film about the great American pastime of baseball, I suspect that many of the rave reviews for "Moneyball" will include some kind of jokey reference to the game--something about it hitting a home run or the like. Doing such a thing is tempting, of course, but I am going to attempt to refrain from them myself, partly because everyone else is going to be doing it and partly because a movie that goes to such lengths to avoid dealing in tired cliches deserves better than to have such things used to analyze it. This really is a smart and utterly fascinating work that is an absolute rarity for something of its type--a movie about sports that people who love the game will adore and that people who have no overt interest in baseball (or films about baseball, for that matter) just might love even more.

Based on the non-fiction best-seller by Michael Lewis, the story opens in 2001 with the Oakland Athletics losing the American League championship to the perpetual juggernaut that is the New York Yankees and to add insult to injury, they then lose three of their best players, Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen, to free agency. The team's general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), would love to snare some big-name talent as well but is stymied by the inescapable fact that he works for a team in a smaller market and the payroll afforded to him by the owners is only about $39 million--approximately 75 million less than the Yankees have on hand. Between the lackluster cash flow and worse prospects, things are so grim that when a well-meaning soul assures him that the team will do better next year, Beane replies matter-of-factly "We aren't going to do better next year."

While off in Cleveland for an essentially fruitless trade discussion with the Indians, Beane notices a low-level employee named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) quietly offering suggestions that are largely ignored by the others. Intrigued, Beane meets up with Brand, a Harvard grad in his first professional job, and listens to what he has to say. Utilizing sabermetrics, a method of looking at players utilizing only statistical analysis as a basis to objectively determine who is most successful at the most basic concept of getting on base, Brand believes that it is possible to not only put together a winning team of players whose abilities perfectly complement each other, it can be done for only a fraction of the cost of the likes of the Yankees by focussing on players who have been chronically undervalued over the years by teams that have overlooked their abilities in favor of flashier players with big personal stats and bigger popular followings. With nothing to lose and his job already hanging by a thread, Beane decides that he has nothing else to lose and hires Brand to help him implement the system with the A's.

Needless to say, the new system doesn't go over too well with the A's organization--not with the scouts who find all their old-fashioned evaluations being thrown out the window on the advice of a number-crunching nerd who never played the game and not manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who flatly refuses to play the combination of players that Beane has put together in favor of utilizing the few hotshots that he still has in his lineup. As a result, the team gets off to an embarrassingly bad start and it looks as though the experiment is doomed to failure until Beane makes some moves that robs Howe of his bright spots and forces him to implement Beane's choices. To the astonishment of everyone, including Beane, the new lineup begins winning games and after pulling off a miraculous 20-game winning streak, it seems as though the way the way the game is played behind the scenes may have truly been changed forever.

With its combination of statistical analysis, a view of the sports industry that could literally be described as inside baseball and a storyline that does not end in the expected manner, any attempt to bring "Moneyball" to the screen in an engaging and entertaining manner has its work cut out for it. At one point, Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Steven Zaillian had planned to utilize a documentary-style approach that apparently would have mixed interviews the the real-life people with dramatic recreations. This conceit apparently did not sit well with the moneymen at Sony, even with Brad Pitt in the lead, and in a move that surprised Hollywood insiders, they scrapped the entire project a few days before it was scheduled to begin shooting. While this version of the project, featuring a rewrite by Aaron Sorkin, Bennett Miller in the director's seat for the first time since "Capote" in 2005 and Pitt still in the lead, is presumably more audience-friendly in its approach than what Soderbergh and Zaillian had cooked up, it is still a fascinating work that deals with plenty of complex and arcane concepts without dumbing things down so much that they become nonsense. Personally, I find statistical analysis to be as boring as. . .to tell the truth, I can't really think of many things more boring than statistical analysis but the film presents those details in such a way so that even if you don't entirely understand each and every nuance of what is being discussed, the general ideas are nevertheless put forth in such a clean and efficient manner that reasonably attentive viewers will always have a good idea of what is going on at an given time. This is a smart movie that is confident enough in itself to assume that its audience is smart as well and as a result, I emerged from the screening feeling as though I had actually learned a thing or two about a subject that was previously alien to me--the kind of sensation that I always long to get from a film and so rarely do.

Beyond transforming number-crunching into something dramatic, the screenplay, credited to both Zaillian and Sorkin does a fairly electrifying job of dramatizing the story in a surprisingly entertaining manner. Avoiding the playing field almost entirely (as Beane himself was famous for), aside for some footage of the actual games, the screenplay approaches the behind-the-scenes material in a straightforward and unadorned manner reminiscent of such other true-life tales as "All the President's Men" and "Zodiac" (the former even gets a visual shout-out via a scene involving secret discussions being held in the bowels of a darkened parking lot) and fans of that approach (which sounds like what Soderbergh and Zaillian were attempting to achieve) will no doubt eat it up. At the same time, "Moneyball" brings in more of a human element that lets the story work as more than just a chilly intellectual exercise without ever feeling like a cop-out move designed to expand the potential audience. In particular, Beane is portrayed as a fascinatingly flawed character who cheerful surface confidence barely masks his own doubts and insecurities about what he is doing--born at least in part by his own experience when, given a choice between a full ride to Standford and a place in the major leagues, picked the latter and discovered too late that the scouts were wrong about his abilities after all--and while he is able to keep up his bravado in the face of mounting calls for his dismissal and a lack of confidence from his fellow organization members, his own young daughter (Kerris Dorsey) is able to see right through him. There are also plenty of great individual scenes in which all of the pieces come together so beautifully that you almost want to applaud them when they end--the best of the bunch is an instant classic bit in which Beane and Brand attempt to pull off a crucial trade by juggling several different phone calls that is so expertly executed that it comes across like a beautifully honed vaudeville routine along the lines of "Who's On First?," only with real players involved.

"Moneyball" is also graced with a number of wonderful performances from its cast as well. Between this and his work in the magnificent "Tree of Life," Brad Pitt is clearly having the kind of year that most actors can only dream of and if one looks at the two seemingly dissimilar characters closely enough, there are some intriguing parallels between them that Pitt is able to work with. On the outside, both characters seem to be brimming with self-confidence in their roles as the patriarchs of groups of occasionally unruly people but beneath the facade, both are insecure men in positions where insecurity is looked upon as a sign of weakness and who have allowed the thwarting of their early dreams to continue to haunt them even after establishing themselves as successes in their adult lives. Pitt's role here is obviously much lighter in tone and he has a lot of fun with it but there is always a serious undercurrent to his behavior that makes Beane come across as far more sympathetic and relatable than he might have in the hands of another actor. Playing a composite of a couple of real-life figures, Jonah Hill excels in the first relatively serious role of his career and he and Pitt make for an unexpectedly winning team with him serving as the straight man to his more flamboyant co-star. Although the character only appears in a few scenes, Miller did the smart thing in hiring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whom he directed to an Oscar in "Capote," to play Art Howe because he brings enough weight and gravity to keeps his presence palpable even when he is off-screen and because Hoffman is great at capturing the genial slipperiness of a manager who gruffly fights Beane's approach with every fiber of his being and yet is cheerfully willing to accept the plaudits when the press wrongfully ascribes the success of the team to his influence.

Because "Moneyball" is a film about baseball in which the excitement comes not from the players on the field but on the behind-the-scenes analysis, number-crunching and complicated wheeling-and-dealing necessary to put those players on the field in the first place, there is, I suppose, the chance that some viewers going into it hoping only to see the usual cliches of the genre may come away from it feeling confused and somewhat disappointed with the result. Then again, those people who might not necessarily be interested in an ordinary sports movie but who are interested in top-flight filmmaking regardless of genre will hopefully want to make a beeline for it as soon as possible because this one is a keeper. Like "The Social Network" before it it takes what would seem on the surface to be the least cinematic premise imaginable and miraculously transforms it into one of the most electrifying and entertaining movies of the year.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21746&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/22/11 23:14:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/25/15 Robert Tschinkel finally a baseball movie about humans and the emotions they experience in this game 4 stars
10/09/13 Simon 3.5, so rounds up. Accessible & tightly written, but some oversights/liberties glaring 4 stars
2/26/12 Monday Morning You'll never leave your seat. Excellent! 5 stars
2/09/12 RueBee would watch it again 4 stars
11/16/11 Steve Capell GREAT movey for those that love baseball. 4 stars
10/14/11 Suzz Not a great film but it was good baseball movie 4 stars
10/10/11 Darkstar i wanted to like it, but it was so slow. 3 stars
9/24/11 Toni Oakland 5 stars
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  23-Sep-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 10-Jan-2012


  DVD: 10-Jan-2012

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